President Joe Biden may be ending U.S. involvement in the war in Yemen, but the country’s suffering continues. Today, one of the most alarming, and under-appreciated, humanitarian issues in Yemen is the escalation of conflict in the governorate of Marib. As the fighting intensifies and moves closer to Marib city, hundreds of thousands of lives are potentially in danger.
Before the current conflict, Marib would have been an unlikely location for the largest concentration of displaced families in the world’s largest humanitarian emergency. If you had driven East from Sana’a toward Marib in 2014, you would be looking for a city of 40,000 people and you might have driven right by it. You would never be able to imagine that it would soon become a place of refuge for hundreds of thousands of Yemenis fleeing war. For decades, Marib received little support from the Yemeni government. Sana’a’s negligent approach was such that when the national government built Yemen’s biggest power plant there, it declined to connect most local districts to the grid.
Despite being left behind in the country’s development plans, Marib city has become a boom town in recent years. This is partly because, since the start of the current war in Yemen in late 2014, Marib has largely been spared from conflict, sheltered in the eye of a fierce storm of fighting raging all around it. After Ansar Allah (commonly known as the Houthis) took control over most of northern Yemen, Maribi leaders stopped forwarding its oil and gas revenues to Sana’a and instead invested them in local development. With affordable fuel (a rarity in Yemen), and water and electricity in the city, Marib has experienced immense growth as most other governorates experienced economic collapse. The results are visible: The city’s only road built before 2015 is now dwarfed by a four-lane highway studded with supermarkets, banks, and five-star restaurants and hotels.
Maribis have welcomed their fellow Yemenis seeking refuge, even as they arrive in astonishing numbers. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has traced approximately 550,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Marib city and 850,000 across the governorate, but the actual number is higher. Local organizations’ estimates put the number of IDPs in Marib governorate at more than 2.2 million.
Though Marib’s stability made it an attractive destination for IDPs, the sheer scale of arrivals has resulted in difficult conditions. The governorate’s health system is buckling under the pressure. More than 100,000 IDPs lack access to even basic health care. Most IDPs live in crowded camp-like settlements with inadequate facilities. Poor sanitation and the near-total absence of waste management in these camps has created hazardous living conditions. This explains why the governorate remains vulnerable to cholera despite widespread access to safe water in Marib city.
Now, Marib could become the site of Yemen’s most profound humanitarian calamity if the parties to Yemen’s war do not immediately agree to and observe a ceasefire. However difficult life has been for IDPs in Marib, more serious risks are now on their doorstep as the Houthis renew their military campaign to capture the governorate. Marib would be a strategic prize for the Houthis: It is the only northern governorate controlled by forces aligned with the internationally recognized government. It is also the location of a large oil refinery, Yemen’s largest power plant, and the country’s principal source of liquified natural gas.
Civilians, and particularly IDPs, will pay a heavy price for fighting in Marib. Last year, when the frontlines were farther from the city, residents were subject to indiscriminate rocket and missile attacks. Saudi-led coalition airstrikes caused 15 civilian deaths and damaged more than 100 civilian structures, according to the Civilian Impact Monitoring Project. Since February, more than 11,000 IDPs in Marib have been displaced again, with some entire camps forced to evacuate.
Most IDPs in Marib hail from northern governorates and fear retribution and harsh treatment if the Houthis manage to take control of the area. Many have been forced to flee several times before finding safety in Marib and do not have the resources to move again but are likely to try anyway. Only one road out of Marib connects to other government-controlled territory but it runs through a vast desert to Shabwa and Hadramawt governorates, whose residents may not welcome them as Maribis have. The international community should spare no effort to save a million or more of the world’s most vulnerable people from being forced to march hastily through a barren desert without protection, water, food, or a safe destination.
While it is unclear what it will take to stop their offensive in Marib, it is clear that the Houthis are attentive to global perceptions of the conflict. These perceptions have been largely shaped by citizens and legislators outside of Yemen who have rightly opposed their own governments’ unconditional support for and arms sales to the Gulf powers fighting in the war. Public outcry, coupled with investigative reporting, has spurred policy change and saved lives in Yemen. It has contributed to the partial resumption of life-saving imports and the Stockholm Agreement, which spared the port city of Hodeidah from fighting (and all of Yemen from a large-scale famine). This sustained public attention and pushback put Yemen at the top of the Biden administration’s foreign policy agenda and prompted sweeping policy changes.
In his first weeks in office, Biden announced that the United States would no longer support offensive operations in Yemen, marking long-awaited progress toward a coherent policy centered on the safety of Yemenis instead of Saudi or Emirati priorities. Congress and the American public should push for this initial commitment to be fulfilled, but they must not divert their attention from the deadly role other parties to the conflict are also playing – especially as a disaster of colossal proportions, not of Saudi Arabia’s making, unfolds before our eyes.
Right now, the United States and the international community must urgently exert pressure and practice deft diplomacy to end the fighting in Marib to avert catastrophe in the coming days and finally put Yemen on a path toward peace and recovery.
Image: Saudi-backed government troops repel a Houthi rebel offensive on oil-rich Marib, some 120 kilometres (75 miles) east of Yemen’s rebel-held capital Sanaa, on February 14, 2021. Photo: AFP via Getty Images